Brian W. Casey's convocation address to the Class of 2020
When I knew, several months ago, that I was going to be coming to Colgate, in this position, I began, of course, thinking about many things. One of the most important things I began thinking of was this class, your class. I knew I would be arriving at the same time you did, and that I would be spending my first years on this campus alongside you.
We would be sharing much together – arriving in central NY, knowing essentially no one at Colgate in the beginning, figuring out how this university worked. And, when thinking about you, it was hard not to be excited by the very name of this class, the Class of 2020 – with all the implications that name suggests about insight, and vision. The Colgate Class of 2020.
When thinking about this class, you, and about what will be your time in college, it was also hard not to come to the conclusion that this class, your class, has been, somehow, tapped by history.
There are moments when large events line up, when change is in the air in a deep way, when the story shifts. In this nation’s history there have been a few such generational moments. People often speak of those in the North American colonies of the 1700s – the Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s -- with their constitutional theories and political philosophies – as a generation touched by fate. Those who led the civil rights movement, the generation that came to American colleges and universities 50 years ago, also must have felt the swirl of history forming specifically around them.
I believe, fully, that your class, and the classes near you, are in such a moment. You have been blessed by history to enter college during what is clearly a significant time.
You cannot encounter the news and the events of the day – in this nation, and around the world, in our cities, on our streets, on the airwaves during a political season like no other – and not know that there is some fundamental set of changes in the air.
And here you are, at this moment, arrived at a college on a hill. And it’s the night before your classes will begin. And history is calling. And it’s evening and we’re in a chapel. And we are gathered here for one reason – and that is to tell you that the one thing you need, in these times – the thing you must try to master, is your capacity to encounter ideas and make them your own. It’s the only plan that makes sense. It is the only path of sustenance. It is the way to best prepare for a world that will change around you.
When I was in college—and I would like to think it was not that long ago—the United States’ great geopolitical enemy was the Soviet Union, we had not identified the HIV virus and no one spoke about global warming. Not one member of my college graduating class had ever sent an email. The personal computer – the first Macs – only arrived as I was leaving college.
My college did not offer – essentially no college at that time offered – courses or majors in environmental sciences, gender studies, or peace and conflict studies. Computer Science was just emerging. What we thought of as biology is hardly biology at all any more. My college offered no courses in Arabic, and it was not alone.
By the measures of the concerns of today, the education I received was woefully inadequate.
But to this day I remember books I read in college, and faculty members who surprised me and shaped me. I can remember the exact spot I sat in the library the first time I really read William Faulkner and Toni Morison. I can remember courses on Celtic poetry, and macroeconomics, and plant biology. And they come back to me in ways that still surprise me.
And I can also tell you this [as was mentioned in the introduction]: as an undergraduate, I majored in Economics and Philosophy. I then went off to law school. A few years after that I went back to school and I took a PhD in History. And I stand here before you today and I am not a philosopher, nor am I an economist. I am not a practicing lawyer, nor can I claim to be a true practicing historian. I am 0 for 4.
But there’s not a week that goes by in which I am not a person who studied economics, where I am not a person who was shaped by readings in philosophy. Every day I still think like an historian. I’m still a person, who predictably turns to writers I love when I’m alone in the world, or baffled by it, or when I need new energy.
So here’s what I hope for you: I hope that sometime in the very near future, maybe next week, maybe next year, you encounter some idea—stated in a class, read in a book, heard in a discussion – an idea that stops you cold. Some idea, or some piece of art, something bigger than you are. Something that places you in awe. I hope that you encounter an idea that firmly divides your life into before and after. It happens. Trust me.
And I want you to consider this idea. I want you to wrestle with it, and then come to understand it—putting that in your backpack to carry with you in your life. The books and ideas stay with you, if you make them your own. And they keep speaking to you in new ways, even as the world changes.
I can tell you the exact moment my own education changed – or, really, when it began. At the end of my first year of college, when all my fellow first years had left the dorms to go off to their summer plans, I stayed behind in my residence hall because my older brother was graduating from the same college I was enrolled in. If you had a sibling graduating, the university let you stay in your room after classes had ended. By some quirk, my large, gothic looking first year dorm was essentially empty as none of my dorm mates seemed to have had permission to stay for the extra week before the graduation ceremonies.
Bored and essentially alone, I wandered over to the university bookstore. With the semester over, the bookstore had a sale in which you could fill a large brown shopping bag with books and pay just 5 dollars for what you had found.
I took the bag they gave you at the door and I wandered over to the literature section, and I saw books still arranged on the shelves by specific courses.
I decided to buy all the books that had been assigned for a modern American literature class in the semester that had just ended. I think I chose this course because the books assigned for the class seemed mostly to be reasonably small paperbacks and all the books could fit into one $5 bag. I needed some principle to organize my purchases, and I probably only had $5 available to me, and this seemed like as good a way to go as any.
Over the next several days I sat in campus courtyard and read away, waiting for commencement to come. I just started reading. And with little to distract me on a quiet campus, I read and read in the sun of that small quadrangle. I eventually finished reading the books over the rest of the summer. And, as I read, in that quad and over the summer, the books started talking to each other, and themes emerged, and arguments showed up.
That summer was the first time I realized I was a reader, and that reading was going to change me.
It was also the first time I understood—though I had already been through a year of college—that a course wasn’t some predetermined object, a set piece, but a narrative of ideas and arguments and questions that a professor had put together, like a nearly-finished picture, and that you could encounter all of this in a thousand ways, and still have more to learn.
The important thing wasn’t just the course, or the subject, but the story of ideas set forth in the readings chosen. It was the structure of a person’s thinking put down on paper. And it was deeply personal. It was an invitation that could be answered over and over.
I eventually met the professor who had assigned those books, and I ended up taking several of his courses in my remaining years in college. He remains a friend and guide to me to this day. And I’ll always remember that he changed my life one summer, speaking to me, alone in a quad, with a syllabus he had created months before. And some part of me will always be that young man in that quad, learning, as if for the first time, how to read.
So, the most immediate and best piece of advice I can give you—that I urgently want to give you—is to meet this faculty. And by that I mean don’t just talk to them in class, or in office hours. Talk to them, really, about the ideas they love.
Just like you they once came to a college – some the first in their families to do so, others one of many in their families to have come to a campus. And somehow they fell in love with a field of study, a set of questions, a set of ideas that deserved to be mastered. And they dedicated themselves to those ideas; and they built their lives around them.
Go speak to them about these ideas. More importantly, find out the back story of how they fell in love with them, how some ideas pulled them forward, how some ideas infuriated them, how some delighted them, and how others opened up vistas they never imagined before.
Find this out. You always learn something interesting when you find out what people love.
I say all of this because the great task before you, and your generation, will not only be to encounter ideas – but to reshape them. And you’re going to need some new ideas, because many of the ones we’ve been running on for a while seem not to be serving us so well.
And that’s going to be your job: to change the world through the power of your ideas. Ideas marked by empathy, virtue, energy, and love.
And that’s why you are on this hill, at this college, at this time.
And that’s why those of us on this stage are here as well.
This is important work. This is joyful work. This is history calling you. The century needs you.
And so tonight I wish you all the best. I can’t wait to see what you will do here at Colgate with this faculty, and in the years and the years ahead.
And, as I said to you the other day: Have no small thoughts here. Have no small dreams.
Good luck to you, Class of 2020.
And thank you.